Should a diversionary program for people facing minor disorderly persons charges require a $500 fee?

Gov. Chris Christie says no - and he's right.

On Monday, Christie conditionally vetoed a bill that would create a new conditional dismissal program for people facing minor Municipal Court charges.

Similar programs - Pre-Trial Intervention and conditional discharge - already exist for more serious, indictable offenses that are handled in Superior Court. So it makes good sense to have a similar program in Municipal Court.

Appropriate defendants (there's a long list of defendants who would not be eligible) would undergo a year of supervision and then have their charges dismissed if they met all of the program's requirements. Christie noted in his veto message that the idea behind the bill is similar to his mandatory drug-treatment program and that "the concept of broadening alternatives to prosecution is promising."

But the governor objected to the $500 fee for admittance into the new program. And he's right about that. A $500 fee is an outrageous amount of money. (The bill also increases the fees for the existing PTI and conditional discharge programs from $75 to $350.)

And while Christie objected to the new $500 fee because of its impact on the citizens who will pay it, we have a larger concern.

Under the bill, $450 of the fee would go directly to the municipality involved. Too many Municipal Courts in New Jersey are already shameless bastions of wheeling and dealing on fines and court costs in a process that clearly has more to do with increasing municipal revenue than the administration of justice.

The Administrative Office of the Courts estimates that this bill would increase the amount paid to municipalities by more than $4 million. That's going to be a mighty tempting pot of money for towns and their Police Departments. All they have to do is increase the number of people they charge with trumped-up disorderly persons offenses (which is not hard to do) and collect $450 from every person who wants to see his or her charge dismissed after a year of supervision.

In other contexts, that's called a shakedown.

Christie is urging the Legislature to set the fee for all three diversionary programs at $75. The bill's sponsor - Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, Hunterdon - has agreed. The Legislature should make the change - to save the worthwhile Municipal Court program it created and to remove the incentive for municipalities to abuse it.

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